One Hundred Million Seeds of Porcelain Contemplation

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Ai Weiwei holds hand-painted, porcelain sunflower seeds from his installation at the Tate Modern in London.

Ai Weiwei holds porcelain seeds from his Unilever installation titled “Sunflower Seeds.” (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s latest installation at the Tate Modern is an incredible feat: one hundred million hand-painted pieces of porcelain that resemble the shells of sunflower seeds. One finds oneself moved to understand its meaning, to grasp its scale, to contemplate the immense amount of energy and ability of so many artisans to produce something this massive — and oh-so delicate — all so that can be walked on, laid on, picked up, thrown, raked, or what have you in the midst of the minimal gray landscape of Turbine Hall.

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A close-up view of some of the porcelain husks used in “Sunflower Seeds.” (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Nothing appears to be what it seems. And, for Weiwei, the meaning goes much deeper: “From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society. Your own acts and behavior tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.”

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A girl and her mother sit and toss some of the 100 million porcelain seeds in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Where Anton Gormley’s massive humanoid sculptures somehow aid your eye on focusing on the environment in which they’re set, nature strangely becomes the focus. Here, I can only imagine, these objets d’art, these precious works of individual hands, become the focal point as you crush them beneath your heels. The sonorous echoes of this footfall is a social and political act in itself — probably one each observer doesn’t fully appreciate until you walk out to the River Thames and trample silently on concrete and manicured turf.

The Guardian has put together this insightful short video of Ai Weiwei discussing the humanity that drives his social and political stances on his art, the creative thinking coming out of China, and the way way technology enabled him to amplify his voice and “to speak for generations who don’t have a chance to speak out”:

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